German is a strange language for English speakers to learn. In part this is because in most German for Foreign Speakers classes, there is a strong emphasis on the use of correct use of articles (16 ways to say the definite article “the”, and 16 more ways to say the indefinite article “a”). There is also a big emphasis in German on getting the “modal verbs” in the right place in the sentence (second place with a bunch of exceptions), and assigning nouns to the right class (masculine, feminine und neuter). Finally there is the use of the genitive form of nouns which is far more elegant than saying the same thing using the equivalent “dative,” I’m told. As an English speaker, my response is to just roll my eyes and push forward.
So I have been pushing forward for the 25 years I have been married to a German. The result is I speak an understandable form of “street German” with my family and friends. But my German is totally bereft of the genitive form, articles are assigned by chance, and my verbs do not always land in the correct position. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who does this; most Germans are used to hearing German spoken in a fashion that is, um, less than elegant. After all, something like 12% of the German population is foreign-born, and there are significant dialectical variations around the country.
In that context, one of the students in a German class I took earlier this year, complained to our teacher about the necessity of learning so many article forms, and especially about the need to use the genitive. As foreigners speaking German, we do not really care first if we sound elegant; being understood is just fine, thank you. In a politically-incorrect moment of frustration, our teacher responded, “You need to use the genitive to speak German or McDonald’s is the only place that will ever hire you.” The assumption is language is a major marker for social class in German society, and that without the genitive you sound uncultured. The politically incorrect point she was making was that it is the foreigners with poor grammar who end up at McDonald’s. Germans are tolerant of accented German, but not German with poor grammar!
To verify this, I asked my sister-in-law if this was true. Ever the truth-teller, she said that it was, and what is more, my German sounds like I work at McDonald’s. To add insult, she added that if she judged me by my German alone, she would assume that I could not possibly work at a university as a professor (which I do—but in English). As a sociologist, I felt a momentary flush of rebelliousness—maybe I should get out and do a bit of participant observation with the Polish, Russian, Turkish, Romanian and other workers at the local McDonald’s! But then I thought about the drop in social status that would imply—as a US American professor I get the ultimately privilege of being respected (and paid) for teaching in my native tongue, even in Germany. And actually that is pretty nice.
Which brings up the nature of privilege, I guess, and why it is so nice for those of us who have it.
Having said that, though, I’m still glad that my German is improving. My accent is still strong, I suppose, but I am getting more confident about pushing into random speaking situations. The oddest one was the other day when I was asked for directions on the street. I knew the answer, but my accent came through strongly, I guess.
“Sind Sie Hollander” (Are you from Holland, using the polite for for “you”).
“Nein, ich bin Amerikaner!”
“Oh, then why aren’t we speaking English?” (said in English)
“Because you spoke to me in German?” (my reply in English)
“Um, oh yeah.”
That last question, said in English, left me at somewhat of a loss. One of the wonders of being American is that there is an assumption that we cannot speak any foreign languages. The other wonder is that many Germans do speak English, and indeed English is the high status second language here (unlike Polish, Romanian, Turkish, etc.). Being a native English speaker is indeed privileged, but at times it can be a strange kind of privilege, particularly when you are trying to inject the genitive into your sentences!